On a day when headlines across Europe blared, “Taylor Swift: White Supremacy is Repulsive. There Is nothing worse,” a group of Minnesota anti-racist activists, organizers, corporate sponsors, donors, church-goers and politicians met to celebrate three women doing incredible social justice work towards a better day. It was a sparse but spirited crowd who gathered Thursday evening in a ballroom at the InterContinetnal Saint Paul Riverfront Hotel for the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundations’ Facing Race Awards, which have been acknowledging anti-racism activists in Minnesota since 2007.
“One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel alright,” trilled a calypso trio in the ballroom, and Bob Marley’s “One Love” set the serious feel-good vibe of the night, with leaders offering words of hope and encouragement to all fighting the good fight and challenging the system, and doing nuts-and-bolts work of change.
The program’s themes were “Changing The Narrative” and “Reclaiming the Power of Our Stories,” which Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundations president and CEO Eric Jolly expanded on in his welcoming remarks.
“Today was a big day,” said Jolly. “The governor of Minnesota today signed the bill that establishes the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force in Minnesota. Our elected officials have ensured that our women are going to have their stories told, and we will not allow their lives to be forgotten. We will change the course of history with what we started today, and that’s the beginning of narrative change, and that’s what this meeting is about, and these are the women we celebrate.”
This year’s honorees were Rev. Gloria Roach Thomas, a retired pastor and nonprofit worker who works with Fiscally Fit, a program working to eliminate economic disparities, and Tuleah Palmer, executive director of the Northwest Native American Business Development Center, which provides transitional housing and commercial space for American Indian artists and works to curb homelessness in Bemidji.
Delivering the keynote address was Ruth Buffalo, who became the first Native American woman to serve in North Dakota’s legislature when she was elected in 2018, and who gained national attention for beating Randy Boehning, the incumbent who sponsored North Dakota’s voter ID law that made it difficult for Native Americans to vote. Buffalo gave a shout-out to her “sister” Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who became the second Native American woman to ever be elected to statewide executive office in U.S. history, and vowed that they are the first of many more Native representatives to come.
Ruth Buffalo delivered the keynote address for the 2019 Facing Race Awards: “When I was deciding whether or not to run, I remember thinking, ‘What’s it going to take to have things change for my children, and for future generations?’ Because quite frankly, a couple weeks before I ran for office, a classmate from grad school and I were organizing a peaceful demonstration to counter an ‘entertainer’ whose act included negative stereotypes toward Native Americans, and that’s putting it mildly. We didn’t want our children to face the same situations that we did when we were their age. And just like I took back my family name Buffalo, we are taking back the names of our stolen sisters; the missing and murdered indigenous women whose disappearances we carry with us always.”
“I’m the first Native American Democratic woman elected to the state legislature in North Dakota,” Buffalo told MinnPost before the awards ceremony. “I’m super honored to be in the presence of such great change makers in the community; it’s a really great honor to be here to see these amazing women receive these awards. You can [practice anti-racism] by taking courage and getting to know your neighbor—something as simple as that is how you move the work forward in anti-racism.
“In the 2018 election, from door-knocking, I came across so many good-hearted people. An elder [white] woman who was in the last stages of her life had a very deep conversation with me that really took me by surprise. She point-blank said, ‘How can we correct the wrongs of the past that we’ve done to Native Americans? I want to correct the wrongs of the past.’ She wasn’t going to vote in the election, but then we door knocked, and she invited me in to sit at her kitchen table, and she decided she wanted to vote for me.”
Rev. Gloria Roach Thomas, pastor and activist, received the Metro East Facing Race Award: “I’m humbled. I feel like I’ve been called to do this work. When you see inequities, when you see disparities, it’s just something that’s really deep down in my spirit and in my bones that I have to do this work. Part of it is always being hopeful, and seeing the light, and wanting hope in your life. We all are looking for hope, and sometimes it’s very hard to be hopeful when you see what’s happening in our world. So that’s been a challenge for me, but I can always muster up the enthusiasm and the motivation to be hopeful and to do the work that I believe I’ve been called to do to make this world a better place.
“[In practicing anti-racism], the first thing is, we can’t wiggle our way out of it. We can’t talk our way out of it. What we really have to do is to see it. We have to open our eyes and know that it’s there. So many times we want to put our heads in the sand. We cannot do that, because it’s in every system, in the fabric of our society. We all need to be a part of this, and I always say, ‘We are the ones that we have been waiting for.’”
Tuleah Palmer, director of Northwest Indian Community Development Center in Bemidji, received the Statewide Facing Race Award: “Our work is about mobilizing community and creating access and pathways for change for people. Because of this award, I’ve been asked a lot what keeps me going and what drives me, and I think you do it because it’s in your blood, and you love what you do. It is stressful, it is hard, but not addressing it is harder — to sit and watch it just continue and not be a part of the change that needs to happen.
“I think in terms of incarceration and the pipeline to prison issues in our community, you love so many people who have been targeted and pushed into that pipeline; they didn’t make those choices, they’ve sort of been groomed since childhood to be incarcerated, and as you get older you tend to see those patterns more and more.
“In small ways, every interaction we have in life is about addressing anti-racism. When we see it, we need to call it out, we need to act on it from a peer-to-peer level and in a human spirit way, that we know that there’s a ‘We’ in this and that it’s not OK. I think we need to be really involved in what’s happening in terms of public policy in our lives, the institutions that touch our lives, and ensuring that public policy benefits the full community, not just parts of the community. We really need to get rid of ‘Minnesota Nice’ and start having honest conversations about what’s going on and be OK with disagreeing until we figure out better practices.”
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter addressed attendees of the 2019 Facing Race Awards: “I was telling a group of folks earlier about the Rondo community that I grew up in, the community that was uprooted to build an I-94, the community that was once a thriving African-American community that saw over a hundred million dollars in today’s dollars stripped from our community. To build that freeway.
“And I was telling them, I don’t think that that happened because there was some smoke-filled room full of people trying to figure out a hundred million dollars of wealth from my community, I think what happened more likely is that somebody wanted a freeway somewhere, and he said, ‘maybe here,’ and some community with agency and power stood forth and said, ‘No, we live here. Not us.’ They found their way to a community like they have before whose agency and power has been intentionally stripped, systemically stripped, legally stripped, economically stripped, politically stripped, and there was no one around in the room to speak up for themselves.
“That fact is in my head every day as mayor. And what it tells me is this: Even as Saint Paul’s first mayor of color, and I agree with you Representative Buffalo there are certainly more coming; I always tell folks I won’t be the last. The exclusive decision-making process is anti-new path forward. Exclusive decision-making process is about our status quo; exclusive decision-making process is how we got into this mess in the first place, and if we’re going to chart a new path forward, it means giving other people the microphone, it means empowering others, it means pulling more and more people into the process.”